How 4 billion years of diversity can help us surpass our 'clone-drone' workstyles

How 4 billion years of diversity can help us surpass our 'clone-drone' workstyles

Water flea
The lowly water flea has innovation lessons for your business.

It was graduation at my youngest son's preschool, and each child stepped to the mic to announce his chosen career. The future may be uncertain, but I predict we’ll soon have a surplus of dolphin trainers and ninjas — and at least one bipedal hippopotamus. Children aren't constrained by pedantic realities. Their future is wide open — anything can be. We snap a quick photo to preserve that naïvete, while our grown-up solutions remain hopelessly trapped in the present, woefully inadequate to the challenges of tomorrow. We face a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, and we’ll need every ounce of our childlike imaginations to meet it.

This VUCA world is nothing new, however. Earth always has been a volatile place, and innovative solutions are critical. Every organism alive had 4 billion years worth of ancestors that survived the exact same kinds of challenges we face today, diversifying and adapting at every turn.

Humans have too, but today’s successes are tomorrow’s fossils, as every paleontologist (and economist) knows. To paraphrase Charles Darwin, "it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." The same is true in business.

Take the tiny Daphnia water flea eggs that lie dormant in the Southern California soil, for instance. They sleep for many long years in the hot, dry dust, but spring instantly to life with a good winter rain. They have to move quickly. These females (all of them are) ravenously consume nutrients and clone themselves as fast as possible. Soon, however, the little pools begin to shrink and the water warms, food and oxygen dwindle. A new strategy is called for. The fleas switch to sex, producing males and scrambling up new gene combinations, launching countless experiments to get some offspring into the future.

Today, disruption and scarcity confront us the same way they do these tiny fleas, challenging stagnant ways of doing business. Nimble adaptation is at a premium, and a new strategy is desperately called for. It’s sexy time! If we want to meet the challenges of a VUCA world, we need to cultivate diversity, for we cannot adapt without it.

Nature achieves adaptability with one essential ingredient, as biologists well know: diversity. Diverse individuals vary, and some variants leave more offspring than others. The population gradually shifts in that direction, and evolution occurs. That’s natural selection in a nutshell. Diversity is literally the raw feedstock of innovation and adaptation; it’s limiting factor. Without it, the population will stagnate. When conditions change — and they always do — it cannot adapt. It blinks out and disappears, joining the ranks of the fossils that came before.

In our own organizations, diversity typically means fairness and inclusion around gender, race, sexual identity and ethnicity — and most importantly, not getting sued. But diversity is far more important than that. It is the fundamental wellspring of our capacity to evolve. It’s also more nuanced: We are individuals, with unique ideas, styles and talents. Anyone can make a difference.

But unique ideas, styles and talents are hard to manage, and our business instinct is to control the chaos by eliminating variation and suppressing diversity. Standard operating procedures, best practices, a professional mask and strict quality control seem to serve our relentless drive for efficiency. Nature uses hierarchies the same way: Our immune systems constantly patrol for foreign invaders and cancerous rogues. Eliminating divergence is a decent strategy when conditions are static, but when they are changing, you’ll need every ounce of innovation. Without diversity, you will blink out and disappear.

How do more ancient organizations do it? Ants, termites and honeybee colonies contain hundreds of thousands, if not tens of millions of genetically distinct individuals, all living and working together in collaborative teams. They are extraordinarily successful, surviving many catastrophic extinction events to spread across the globe: They are consummate adapters, making constant adjustments on the fly, innovating without managers, orders or disengagement. How does it work?

These superorganisms succeed by self-organizing into networks of diverse individuals, each pursuing its own parallel experiments around a compelling shared purpose: a collective future. Where our relentless pursuit of efficiency makes organizational redundancy synonymous with a pink slip, the ants use it as an insurance policy. They don’t need to worry about preventing mistakes by getting permission from a superior, or managing bad apples with annual reviews and HR. They don’t bother weeding out deviants or enforcing standardization, and they don’t suffer from disengagement and frustration. Redundancy allows every individual to pursue its own experiments safely and freely. 

When honeybees need a new home, for instance, all the scouts fly out in different directions, searching for suitable spots. When one finds something, she’ll inspect it. Is it dry and safe? Could it store enough honey for the winter? If the answer is yes, she’ll fly back to the swarm and do a "waggle dance" — a series of symbolic movements that tell the other scouts where to go. A vigorous dance convinces others to check it out for themselves, and they return and dance too if they agree. The dance-floor grows noisy, filled with independent-minded bees waggling and humming for different sites. Finally, one site garners a critical threshold of support, and the entire hive takes flight, making a beeline for their new home. By gathering a diverse selection of independent possibilities, the bees converge on a single choice — and it is nearly always the best one.

Our own organizations need the same kind of diverse and independent contributions, the same kind of parallel experimentation and purposeful engagement. Transcending our clone-drone workplaces to insist on diversity, creativity and fearless experimentation is the key to our adaptive success. But we are apes, not ants, and if leadership doesn’t actively nurture our diversity, individuality and creativity, then the human urge to conform will silence it — and we’ll get more of the same disengaged clones.

Leadership takes many forms in a superorganism, and looks quite different from our own executives and managers. The queen is the colony’s heart and soul, although she controls very little and gives no orders. As a virgin queen, gathering diversity is her first and most critical job. After a perfect light rain, she takes to the air, mating with as many drones from nearby colonies as possible. It might take her several days to acquire her perfect sperm kaleidoscope, but she will keep at it until she does. She needs it to create a healthy, productive, nimble and adaptive hive that successfully can launch offspring into the future.

Author and philanthropist Vineet Nayar embodied this strategy at HCL Technologies, a software company in India. When Nayar took the helm in 2007, the company suffered from rampant employee disengagement and stagnant revenues. But with his distinctly "(r)evolutionary" leadership, revenues blossomed — from $743 million in 2007 to $4.7 billion in 2013. He sparked this dramatic turnaround by cultivating diversity and experimentation, with a no-penalty innovation culture. Nayar doubled down on the company intranet, and encouraged online self-organization around everything from art, music, sustainability, technology, hobbies and "big dream" projects. Everything was outside the formal hierarchy. He ran weekly polls and added a brainstorming feature, where employees could point out problems, propose new solutions and ask questions. Employees upvoted the best answers, propelling previously invisible experts to the top. Nayar tapped them to lead the new experiments.

But he soon realized that many people were uncomfortable being their whole selves at work — they weren’t used to having permission to be diverse and experimental. He gathered an army of 2,500 "Innovation Igniters" in response. They worked like carnival buskers, walking into work areas and activating employee creative juices with stand-up comedy improv games. The rules were simple: Try anything, be yourself, be willing to experiment and fail, no penalty, no judgment. He incentivized this innovation culture by depositing the actual value of each employee's ideas into an "Innovation Bank," as virtual money anyone could see. By placing a value on diversity and experimentation, and leading for innovation, engagement soared — along with the bottom line.

Our children aren’t constrained by pedantic limitations, and neither are good leaders. It’s a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world out there, and a new strategy is called for. "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise," as the Bible says. Take a cue from nature — scramble up new experiments and invest in the raw feedstock of innovation and adaptation. Hold space for diverse individuals with unique ideas, styles and talents; foster a no-penalty innovation culture. Anyone can make a difference, and anything can be. The future is wide open, and we’ll need every ounce of our childlike imaginations to meet it.